The third work of elders is to act as overseers. This ministry is so important that the term “overseer” is actually a synonym for “elder” in the NT (compare Acts 20:17, 28). The Greek word “episkopos” comes from the preposition “epi” (over) and “skopeo” (look, watch) giving the sense of one who watches over others. It carries with it an authority to maintain order & harmony in the congregation. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) uses the word for government or temple officials (2 Ki 11:15; com-pare 2 Chron. 34:17).
The Lord Jesus is referred to as “The Shepherd and Bishop (or, Overseer or “episkopos”) of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25 KJV). His very life was marked by looking after the good of His own, and watching against evil. On one occasion, we see him casting money changers out of the temple. This is after he had gone to the temple and “looked around” the day before (Mk 11:11,15). No word better describes the work of church elders. As the first two works we considered (feeding and leading) were given for the “nurture” of God’s people collectively, the third and fourth supply the “admonition” side, to provide a safeguard against internal strife (overseeing) and serious attack (protecting).
The Work of Oversight: a Good Work
Three words apply to effectively overseeing others. An elder must have wisdom to deal with people. He must know the teaching of Scripture about godly conduct and relationships, and have some experience in maintaining order and harmony in the church. Though he must not act like a dictator (or “lord it over God’s heritage” 1 Pet. 5:3), he must have God given authority to deal with problems that arise. In writing to the young church at Thessalonica, Paul exhorts the congregation to know those who labor among them and are over them in the Lord. Then, turning to those who are leading (possibly not yet formally recognized as elders), he writes (paraphrased): “See to it that no one renders evil for evil….” making it clear that an authority to act on the part of the leaders is taken for granted. While this authority comes from God, it must be recognized by the people in the church—that recognition provides the credibility to stand for what is right when trials come.
Some may question why this function would be necessary in a group that emphasizes the equal priesthood of all believers. But just as God has set different roles within a family, so also in the church. As with any family, problems can arise and good food must be balanced with proper care and discipline. Nurture and admonition compliment each other. Both must be done with love, and love cannot be present where either is lacking.
The Hard Part of Elder Work
Having the responsibility of an overseer is not an easy job if taken seriously. Paul reminds Timothy that an elder who rules well should be “counted worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5:17). Many Scriptures require holiness and order in the house of God (Ps 93:5; 1 Cor 14:40; 1 Tim 3:15). Nothing can spoil a good work faster than neglected evil. In fact, doing the hard thing is usually the key to blessing, while overlooking wrongs brings a solemn warning: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl 8:11). “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” (1 Cor 5:6) means simply: sin spreads! An elder must not look the other way while evil destroys the work. Accordingly, we find the early elders (or apostles) confronting the first public sin in the church (Acts 5), dealing with grumbling (Acts 6), arranging a ministry of care (Acts 11), responding to a doctrinal threat (Acts 15), called on to pray for the sick (James 5:14) and charged to address relationship problems (Phil. 4). In general, they were watching for the souls of the believers under their charge (Hebrews 13:17).
Most people expect children to complain about the disciplines of school. But we know that as they mature children will realize how “rulers” and rules are the structures that make education possible. As with children, so with sheep. The loving presence of those who can “take care of the church of God” (1 Tim. 3:4) brings security to the young, prevents bitterness from taking root, and keeps false doctrine from being spread. Godly overseers help the local church become a worthy model for the Christian family, as well as a suitable environment in which Christians can grow and become equipped for service. Truly, “…if any man desires the work of an overseer, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:1).